Painted, Bare-Breasted Women in Times Square Show Politicos' and Top Cop's True Colors


Over the last few years, there have been several incidents that have reflected unflatteringly on the growing cast of costumed characters vying for tourist dollars in and around Times Square. 

There was Elmo caught on video shouting all kinds of rabid anti-Semitic slurs. Then Hello Kitty and Minnie Mouse got into a literal fistfight. Super Mario was busted for groping a woman, and Woody from Toy Story got similarly, disgustingly handsy with two ladies. And then there were two different Spidermen, one of whom allegedly punched a mother for refusing to tip for a photo, while another reportedly socked a cop in the eye.

Yet nothing seems to have unnerved city officials quite like the preponderance of women’s bare breasts in the area. While the aforementioned stories have elicited scattered grumblings about the need to regulate Times Square street performers, the issue only reached its tipping point this summer. The desnudas — topless women with breasts painted to resemble the American flag and various other designs who pose for pictures with tourists in exhange for tips — have inexplicably become New York City tabloids’ and public officials’ enemy number one. Like their costumed cohorts, they have been accused of sometimes being a little too aggressive toward tourists. But despite the fact that they are largely absent from the occasional stories of fisticuffs involving Times Square street performers, the desnudas seem to be taking nearly all the heat in the public and political battle for Times Square. 

A surprising coalition of city leaders, who are otherwise rarely in agreement, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, have taken to moralizing and pearl-clutching about the desnudas, vilifying them as if they are the source of some creeping moral decay. (“I think it’s wrong. It’s wrong,” de Blasio stated at a press conference in August before calling himself “a progressive who believes in civil liberties and believes in our First Amendment.") Now some of those same voices are proposing that the hugely successful Times Square pedestrian plaza, where the buskers ply their trade, be razed. To be resurrected in its place? The car-glutted, pedestrian-unfriendly, air quality-denigrating traffic lanes of yore.

“[It’s] a very big endeavor, and like every other option, comes with pros and cons,” Mayor de Blasio stated last month in response to a question about the plazas and the potential for their removal. “So we’re going to look at what those pros and cons would be. You could argue that those plazas have had some very positive impacts. You could also argue they come with a lot of problems.” 

Police Commissioner Bratton made his own preference quite clear in an interview the same day: “I’d prefer to just dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was.”

In the meantime, the mayor announced, he has assembled a task force in the wake of “serious concerns... about both the appropriateness of topless individuals in Times Square, as well as aggressive solicitation by topless individuals and costumed characters that oftentimes becomes harassment of New Yorkers and visitors alike.” The commission, which is co-chaired by Bratton and Department of City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, and includes representatives from numerous other city agencies as well as “the Times Square community and local elected officials,” will be tasked with “study[ing] the legal and oversight issues associated with regulating topless individuals and costumed characters.”

"This is a situation that I don't accept, and we will deal with it very aggressively," de Blasio said. "Soon."

Only time will tell if it’s all just so much political posturing. But as of now, it’s pretty obvious that the case for eliminating the Time Square pedestrian plaza seems awfully weak, considering it’s been a hit on pretty much every front. In early 2009, when Michael Bloomberg first proposed the car-free area, many New York City residents (including this one, while we’re using the 20/20 lens of hindsight) bemoaned it as yet another act of forced Disneyfication upon the city by its billionaire mayor.

Six years later, New York City tourists and residents both seem to prefer the new digs. (I’ll save the rant about artisanal-everything Brooklyn for another story.) In 2010, a New York City Department of Transportation study of Times Square post-pedestrian mall found injuries to those in cars had dropped 63 percent, injuries to pedestrians had fallen 35 percent, and the number of pedestrians walking in the street had declined by a staggering 80 percent. A 2011 New York City Health Department survey found significant reductions in air pollution, stating that “[nitrogen oxide] pollution levels in Times Square went down by 63 percent while [nitrogen dioxide] levels went down by 41 percent.” Even 74 percent of New Yorkers polled by the Times Square Alliance said the area had “improved dramatically"  — a number that is striking in that it may be the greatest number of New Yorkers in history ever to agree on absolutely anything, ever.

On top of erasing all those improvements, removal of the pedestrian plaza directly conflicts with Mayor de Blasio’s own stated mission for the city. City Hall has spent a significant amount of effort trumpeting Vision Zero, an initiative aimed at lowering traffic and pedestrian fatalities. A webpage dedicated to the action plan states that “4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 are killed each year in traffic crashes. Being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14, and the second leading cause for seniors. On average, vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours." With these facts in mind, undoing the Times Square pedestrian plaza — a project that, all told, cost the city some $55 million and has made a significant contribution to Vision Zero’s goal of “systematically address[ing]” road fatalities — seems wholly counterintuitive. And as such, the proposal has earned a fair amount of blowback.

“Sure, let’s tear up Broadway,” Tim Tompkins, president of Times Square Alliance, said to the New York Times in a recent piece about the proposed plan. “We can’t govern, manage or police our public spaces so we should just tear them up. That’s not a solution. It’s a surrender.”

Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a group dedicated to “better bicycling, walking and public transit, and fewer cars,” seemed shocked by the suggestion. “I’m, like, reeling right now,” he told the New York Times. “There’s challenges with hustlers and so forth, but that’s no reason to expose pedestrians to the danger that we had before.”

“[W]hat could be more wholesome, more progressive, indeed more transcendent, to use the mayor’s favorite form of self-praise, than to favor carbon monoxide over irritating hucksters?” asked New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson in a piece critical of the idea. “The strategy has the added benefit of tossing a spadeful of dirt on the legacy of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg.”

Perhaps most troubling, for many, about the proposition is the fact that it seems driven primarily by puritanical moral imperatives — that is, getting rid of all the topless ladies in Times Square and making sure they take their naked lady parts with them — instead of prudent city planning, quality-of-life issues or health and safety concerns. The mayor nearly said as much this August when he stated, "As a human being and a parent, I don't think it's appropriate that in the middle of one of the busiest squares of New York City that women should display themselves that way.”

It’s a shockingly retrograde take on things from a mayor who ran not just as the conservative challenger, but as the "liberal" (an imprecise designation in this age) candidate. Is the sight of women’s breasts actually so troubling that it demands the shuttering of what is now considered a world-class feature of New York City’s most touristed area? Are those breasts any more titillating than those that are featured, prominently and frequently, on billboards and the megatron all around Times Square? Considering that it is not illegal to panhandle (under the First Amendment) or for women to appear topless in public in New York City (see People v. Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss, 1992), what, except the belief that women’s bodies need to be policed, is the justification for such a radical proposal? If this isn’t just about discomfort with women’s nakedness, why isn’t anyone (save for task force member Carolyn Maloney — more on that later) talking about the Naked Cowboy, a living New York City institution of sorts who appears in the same state of undress as the desnudas but who, being male and all, happens not to have breasts?

Those questions seem to have given pause to more than a few others following the story. On the heels of Mayor de Blasio’s remarks, the Wall Street Journal spoke with Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who pointed out, “People have been complaining about Cookie Monster and all the characters for such a long time, but now with the advent of these women whose bodies are painted it all blows up? So it’s interesting...that was the flash point.”

New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin told WSJ she was “struck by the gender inequity” the mayor’s quote revealed. She added that the remarks were “insensitive and unaware and uninformed and poorly advised.”

In addition, WSJ noted that “[a]t City Hall, at least four women in the de Blasio administration said privately they were offended by the mayor’s campaign against the topless panhandlers.”

It seems likely that, after spending much of his time thus far in office doing battle with more conservative forces in the city (de Blasio’s vaguely expressed support for protesters following Eric Garner’s death and Ferguson found him in a much publicized battle with the city’s cops), the current anti-desnuda effort offers some political remedy. First, there’s the chance to make peace of a sort, and to work in tandem, with the cops. The controversy also offers the opportunity for the mayor to appear pro “family values,” a stance which is decidedly anti-nudity in any form, to members of New York’s old guard. Think voters who miss Giuliani, view de Blasio as an anti-cop, soft-on-crime, Marx-Engels Reader-toting radical, and see every news item as a sign the city is returning to the gritty days of the 1970s and ‘80s.

Andrew Cuomo — yet another pol with whom the mayor has had flareups — plays to such fears when he harkens back to the Times Square of movies like Taxi Driver and late-century suburban nightmare visions of New York City. “What [people are] saying is, ‘I was around for the bad old Times Square, and this is starting to remind me of the bad old Times Square'...There wasn’t blatant corruption, it was seedy, there were panhandlers, there were people on the streets soliciting people to go inside for peep shows.” And then, in a statement that seems odd coming from the man who previously served as the state’s Attorney General, he also added, "I believe this activity is illegal." (At least the mayor acknowledges “there is a First Amendment protection for begging. There is a First Amendment protection for painting yourself and displaying yourself in a certain fashion. It makes no sense, but I understand that is a First Amendment protection.”)

In the meantime, the city has essentially doubled the police force in Times Square, taking the current total on the beat from 47 — “down from a high of 130 in recent years ​under former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ​and 100​​ just months ago” the Post notes — back up to 100. The much-discussed Times Square task force met for the very first time on September 17, despite the fact that it is slated to deliver a comprehensive report on next steps for the area by October 1. Task force member Carolyn Maloney told the Observer in August, “I will say the Naked Cowboy and the flag-painted women should be treated the same. There should be equal treatment. I will certainly be watching to be sure they will be treated the same...My message today is equality.”

Opponents of the desnudas have new ammunition in their efforts to remove the women from Time Square’s maddening crowds of picture takers and tip solicitors. Recently, one desnuda and her boyfriend were arrested on drug and prostitution charges (she contends they were set up by police); another was criticized when she brought her 2-year-old daughter with her, costumed as a topless mini-me with a painted chest. It should be noted that another desnudaattacked by a random woman on the street (she claims police, thanks to the crackdown, purposely took their time stopping the assault), says the area feels less safe for the “painted ladies” these days.

New York Magazine writer Davidson, cited above, makes the most insightful summation of the situation, pointing out the holes in the current debate about removing the plazas.

“[E]radicating a pedestrian plaza because you don't like who's walking there is like blasting away a beach because you object to bikinis or paving a park because you hate squirrels. It represents such a profound misunderstanding of public space that it makes me question the mayor's perception of what counts as progressive. Yes, Times Square is congested, tacky, and annoying. Most street performers are protected by the First Amendment, so you can’t simply force them to leave. Harassment isn't made more fun — or more legal — by a furry, primary-colored costume. These are stubborn facts, and the best way of dealing with them is to grant permits for street performers the way the city regulates vendors. Granted, that’s time-consuming and not always effective, but solving a current problem by reverting to an old one is, at best, a cop-out.”

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